- The Voices of the Prairie:The Use of Music in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie
There is one thing that will always remain the same to remind people of little Laura's days on the prairie, and that is Pa's fiddle.—Laura Ingalls Wilder, Letter to Harper & Row, Publishers
The "Little House" series by Laura Ingalls Wilder has been widely praised as a richly detailed recreation of the settling of the American West. Much of the critical work on the eight-book series has dealt with the novels' historical authenticity and accuracy (Cooper, Segal), their autobiographical nature (Dykstra, Spaeth), the collaborative process with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, which produced the series (Moore), and Wilder's literal and metaphorical use of space. Whether the "Little House" series is seen as a working out of Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis, or as part of the heroic, but inherently false, glorification of the settling of the West by white pioneers as argued in a recent controversial exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute, "The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920" (Truettner), the "Little House" books have generally been analyzed as visual rather than auditory landscapes.
An overlooked, but important aspect of the series, is the metaphorical role that music plays in the novels. In examining the many uses of music in Little House on the Prairie (1935), the second book in the series, I hope to draw attention to the symbolic importance that Wilder places on music in her novels, and suggest some of the many ways she utilizes music to develop her themes. Critics such as Hamida Bosmajian, Dolores Rosenblum, and Virginia Wolf have explored how Wilder uses the intimate circles of civilization within the vast open space of the prairie to create a sense of security and a synthesis with nature; I describe how Wilder uses music to symbolically link the settlers with the landscape of the prairie and how—over and over again, like a constant refrain—she connects the music of pioneers with the other voices of the prairie.
The Ingalls, like many settlers of the 1860s and 1870s, initially view the prairie as an empty, uninhabited locale waiting to be cultivated. It is [End Page 158] this very appearance of absence that makes the Kansas landscape so appealing to Pa, who at the beginning of the novel urges his family to leave Wisconsin, which is the setting of the first book in the series, Little House in the Big Woods (1932), where he feels crowded in by the sounds of the other settlers; he complains of "the ringing thud of an ax which was not Pa's ax, or the echo of a shot that did not come from his gun" (Wilder 1-2). The prairie becomes a blank canvas on which the family can make its mark. Or perhaps more appropriately, it is a clean piece of composition paper on which they can leave their notations.
Yet for all its apparent emptiness, the prairie is surprisingly deceptive and fertile with its own sources of music. Wilder describes the Kansas landscape in a typical early passage as, "That prairie looked as if no human eye had ever seen it before. Only the tall wild grass covered the endless empty land and a great empty sky arched over it" (Wilder 26). But as Laura's casual exploration of her new environment reveals, close to the place where the Ingalls have chosen to build the new house is "a queer little kind of tunnel in the grass" (Wilder 55), which the family quickly discovers is an Indian trail. The Ingalls, as well as the reader of the novel, are confronted not with a tabula rasa, but a richly populated landscape that is not quite so barren or as soundless as it might at first appear.
In a similar fashion, the aural landscape of The Little House on the Prairie initially appears silent and devoid of sound, except for the constant blowing of the wind. The reader might be tempted to consider the Kansas prairie to be a great empty chamber waiting to be filled by sounds of Pa...